Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2008
Angela Miller, Janet Berlo, Bryan Wolf, and Jennifer Roberts American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 704 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Paper $100.00 (9780130300041)

Crafting a useful and compelling textbook from the diverse, contested, and ever-mutating material and methodologies of any scholarly field constitutes no small task. The authors of American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity are to be congratulated for the boldness and originality with which they approached such an endeavor, and their survey of the art and visual culture of the geographic region now known as the United States does indeed constitute, as the back-cover copy states, a “tremendous accomplishment.”

The text presents a persuasive and rich portrait of the history of the arts in America on two levels. First, it narrates this history as it has come to be understood in recent years by the majority of scholars in the field, i.e., one not wholly bound by chronological or geographic borders. In American Encounters, the history of American art begins well before conquest and colonization (and this portion of the text is substantive, much more than a token acknowledgment of pre-conquest cultures and civilizations), and it extends beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard to attend (again, substantively) to multiple regions, including those that constitute the origin points of various sorts of diasporas (Africa and Mexico, for instance). Second, it focuses on and organizes itself around the idea of “encounter,” understood in multiple ways: as encompassing both intercultural and intracultural encounter as well as phenomena such as migration, immigration, exile, human trafficking, and trade, and also dialogue between past and present, “high” and “low,” history and memory, and function and form.

As a result, the text articulates and explores what one might argue was and continues to be the central mechanism for artistic and cultural formation in America. At points in the narrative the authors abandon the theme of encounter for a more traditional march of artists’ names and dates (this happens more in the second half of the book, and particularly in the chapters on the first half of the twentieth century); and, at times, the idea of encounter seems forced onto the material for the sake of thematic continuity (for example, in chapter 10, “A New Internationalism: The Arts in an Expanding World, 1876–1900,” familiar accounts of cosmopolitanism, expatriatism, and japonisme preclude what elsewhere in the book constitutes a more nuanced examination of encounter and exchange). Moreover, in some of the thematically organized chapters, certain material can seem tacked on, not engaged in the overall narrative of the whole. This is especially the case with discussions of design and architecture that come at the end of a chapter, abruptly and out of the blue, without articulation of a logic of inclusion apart from contemporaneity. Yet such lapses do little to detract from the overall success of the authors’ thematic approach, not least because it enables them to pursue an integrated approach to telling the history of the arts in America, one that, at its best, dispenses with conventional categorizations and divisions (without flattening all sense of distinction and difference) so as to retell and recontextualize this history, presenting it in all its complexity and unruliness.

As examples of this, take chapters 7 (“Native and European Arts at the Boundaries of Culture: The Frontier West and Pacific Northwest, 1820s–1850s”) and 9 (“Post-War Challenges: Reconstruction, the Centennial Years, and Beyond, 1865–1900”). Both consider diverse practices and artifacts alongside one another, under several thematic umbrellas, without separating out and isolating objects according to medium, artistic identity, or culture—or in terms of “high” and “low” or “European-descended” and “other”—such that the reader of the text gains a sense of the simultaneity of manifold practices as well as the importance of attending equally to each as part of a complex and many-threaded historical fabric. So, for instance, in chapter 7, the visual culture of the Plains states is understood to encompass animal-skin shields and robes crafted by Native American artists as well as images of indigenous populations and practices created by George Catlin; and the idea of encounter is articulated wonderfully by way of juxtaposing Catlin’s rendition of the Mandan chief Máh-to-tóh-pa and the chief’s own painted history of his life and accomplishments.

Other chapters deploy themes different than encounter to organize and enliven their narratives, with analogous success. Chapter 14 (“The Arts and the City, 1913–1940”) begins with a section entitled “The Skyscraper in Architecture and the Arts” that considers both the iconography and the idea of the skyscraper across multiple media (from actual buildings to interior design, photography, fashion, and film) so as to articulate key concepts pertaining to modernity and the arts. Chapters 18 (“Art into Life, 1960–1980”) and 19 (“American Art in Flux, 1980–Present”) lucidly and eloquently reorganize and restage typical textbook narratives of recent and contemporary art by dismantling the “movement” paradigm and by considering the practices of the usual suspects along with a host of other, equally important artists or artists collectives (including Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, T.C. Cannon, Asco, David Hammons, Elaine Reichek, and Do-Ho Suh) not always included in surveys of post-1960s art. Unlike previous chapters, these final sections consider the work of artists of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, men and women both, without making these backgrounds, or gender, the primary interpretive frame for their art. This is not to say that the author of these sections deems considerations of race or sex (or class) unimportant, but to suggest that the chapters succeed in presenting a new and enriched history of American artistic practice by virtue of wriggling free of the clutches of over-determined (and often inaccurate, or even offensive) identity-based interpretations and by, instead, positing these artists in terms of the larger themes their work engages (including globalization, the pictorial field, the figure, and art and science; the section on art and language, which includes discussion of Jenny Holzer, the Guerilla Girls, and Glenn Ligon, is exemplary).

Earlier chapters appear stuck in an identity rut. With the exception of (by my count) two figures (Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, chapter 16), artists identified as African American in these chapters are presented and discussed in terms of this identity or in terms of “black art” or “race” (chapters 3, 5, 9, 14, 15). In certain cases, this makes perfect sense, in others, less so. The Early Republican portraitist Joshua Johnston, for instance, does not fit entirely comfortably in the “African American Enlightenment” section of chapter 5 (the fact that he was African American is not reason enough for inclusion); and the oddness of the fit seems especially so given that he is segregated from what seems a much more appropriate section, “Painting in the New Nation,” which follows a few pages later and includes a discussion of portraiture in the Early Republic. The category of race is itself treated strangely in the text; at times it appears in quotes (“race”), as in chapter 9, and at others stands unqualified by any such designation, as in chapter 3. At no point is the category itself interrogated, and it is consistently treated as interchangeable with “black” or “African American.” Given the insights of critical race theory over the past decade or so regarding the history of the construction of race as an idea or concept, particularly in terms of the transatlantic and American contexts, such usage in the space of a self-proclaimed revisionist text can rankle (and might misinform student readers).

That said, such usage might also constitute an opportunity for the instructor of a course on the arts of America to engage these student readers in a productive discussion of the concept of race, one instigated by the text’s own presentation of the issue. In the preface to American Encounters, the authors discuss with refreshing honesty their own critical and methodological orientations and what they believe to be at stake—historically as well as methodologically—in their writing of the text. They also state their wish for the text to be “an active presence in the classroom, a text to argue with and to assist in framing issues.” If nothing else, to be pedagogically useful a textbook should provide opportunities for argumentative engagement, for pushing back against and challenging what is declared in print. This textbook provides much more than this, of course; but one of its chief merits is the manner in which it allows for such engagement, and not just by virtue of the things (like “race”) it does not get quite right (one could also point to the unreconstructed view in chapter 2 of John White’s images of the Algonkian as realistic and “objective,” their post-Renaissance use of gridded, or perspectival, space a matter of recording things exactly as they were; recent writing on White’s use of perspective and on the cultural and ideological status of perspective more generally should have steered this reading otherwise).

Although it is impossible to tell with absolute certainty which of the authors wrote or co-wrote what sections, it is clear that multiple voices contributed to the narrative; and students might be encouraged to compare approach, methodology, and style across chapters so as to engage critically with the history of American art but also with the telling of that history. Such an exercise would be encouraged by the fact that some chapters are thematically structured, while others hew more to the standard narrative-by-artist, -genre, or -media model, and yet others do a little bit of both (or neither: chapter 6, despite the theme of “the body politic,” is glorious in its resistance to making things neat and tidy and stands as a perfect model for the articulation of the unruliness of history). It seems to me that the authors had these things in mind when framing and writing—hence the very interesting and useful box sections that comment on and amplify what is presented in the narrative, draw attention to and define terminology, and create connective tissue between earlier and later sections—and their text is the better for it.

American Encounters, as a whole, stands as a major achievement and promises to enrich and enliven the study and teaching of American art and visual culture. I look forward to using it in my own courses, and I imagine that many of my colleagues, on reading it, will feel the same.

Rachael Z. DeLue
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University